Cymbeline: a rare jewel

Secret House at the Depot Theatre, Marrickville

Directed by Sean O’Riordan

Why should we be made to give up our fairytales just because we are going to grownup theatre? I was delighted to finally have the chance to see Cymbeline performed, one of Shakespeare’s late Romances, full of whimsy and folkloric imagery, and fanciful coincidences and resolutions. Set in Roman Britain, the play combines staples of fairytale (wicked stepmother queen, banished princess) with staples from Shakespeare’s bag of tricks (woman falsely accused of adultery, smooth-talking villain, family long separated reunited).

The design for this production shows just how much atmosphere can be conjured with minimal resources. As ever, the key seems to be to give actors a variety of levels to work on (pay attention, Sydney Theatre Company). Some wooden pallets, some fabric throws with interesting textures, and costumes that were other things ripped apart and re-assembled created a fantasy world the actors could dig themselves into. Because Cymbeline is a fantasy, and it is foolish to write it off as a play because of its core features, just because we have become so used to promoting Shakespeare by singing about its ‘relevance’. This punk/Elizabethan/goth framing was a great way to indicate to the audience that we were to enjoy a bloody and fantastical tale, which proved to be enormously good fun.

A large ensemble creates the advantage of full crowd scenes and a range of vibrant smaller roles, but the difficulty of finding a consistent acting level. Here, a terrifically strong, rather magnificent Belarius was counterpoised by a weak Cymbeline, and numerous polished and vivid female characters faced young men who looked the part, but lacked the vocal depth to convince in the more demanding speeches.

A touching Imogen showed her good, sound heart, which wins her friends all the way through the story, even while her nearest and dearest plot to do appalling things to her. She brought out some of the play’s most charming lines, which remind us that Shakespeare is all about those heightened emotional moments:

I draw the sword myself: take it, and hit
The innocent mansion of my love, my heart;
Fear not, ’tis empty of all things but grief.

The pacing was excellent, with the whole of the piece racing along without a dip in the action. This was pure storytelling, and an excellent reminder that a rattling good yarn told with enthusiasm is the bedrock of what theatre needs.

Young white woman in bodice and white skirt reaching out.


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